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Connacht will reach the quarter-finals of the European Rugby Champions Cup for the first time if they beat Toulouse on Sunday.
The Irish province have put themselves in a strong position to qualify for the last eight as they head into the final weekend of the European pool stages leading Pool 2 on 18 points.
Connacht have already beaten previous Champions Cup winners Toulouse and Wasps and will go into Sunday’s game at the Stade Ernest-Wallon with confidence.
“We’re top of the pool and we’ve worked hard to be here – Wasps and Toulouse, they’re two champions and we’ve beaten them,” Connacht head coach Pat Lam said.
“We have earned the right to be where we are now and more importantly going into this game, to have that control in our hands is great.
“We have worked hard right through this pool to get ourselves into a situation where we go out to win, so we do our work, we prepare, and whatever it takes to win the game is what we are after.
“Of course we are aware of other scenarios, but we have a mindset that it is not about bonus points, but preparing to go into the biggest game of Connacht's history.
“Toulouse will punish us badly if we don't get it right, so it is important to have a good week's training now.”
Connacht skipper John Muldoon signed a new contract for the 2017-18 campaign on Wednesday. The veteran flanker made his senior debut in 2004 and has featured 291 times for his home region.
“It’s hard to believe next season will be my 15th with Connacht,” Muldoon said. “In one way the time has flown by but we have also changed immeasurably as a club in the time since I started out.
“I’m proud of everything we have achieved, highlighted by the Pro12 win last season, but I believe there is a lot more to come from us as a club.”
Toulouse still have a chance of qualifying for the knock-out stages as a bonus-point victory over Connacht would see them progress.
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Toulouse held off a spirited Connacht effort to book their place in the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-finals and deny their Pool 2 rivals.
Connacht knew a losing bonus-point would have been enough to seal a first appearance in the Champions Cup last-eight. But they paid the price for a slow start. Tries from Gael Fickou, Arthur Bonneval and Joe Tekori put the four-time champions 19-3 ahead at the start of the second-half.
John Muldoon’s try gave Pat Lam hope of a place in the quarter-finals, but they failed to find the decisive penalty or drop-goal that would have seen them advance. Toulouse qualify as best runner-up from Pool 2 and will travel to Thomond Park to take-on Munster in a mouthwatering clash at Thomond Park.
Toulouse got off to a ferocious start at Stade Ernest Wallon. Fickou used his fast feet to break in midfield and storm downfield to put the hosts on the front-foot. Cyril Baille was held-up over the line after some heavy pressure, but the breakthrough soon came. The hosts took a quick-tap penalty and hammered away at the try-line, before Sebastien Bezy found Fickou in space, and all he had to do was dive over the try line. Jean Marc Doussain converted for an early 7-0 lead.
And it got even better for the four-time European champions after 17 minutes. Yoann Huget sliced through in midfield and charged downfield before finding Bonneval with a perfectly weighted pass. The winger fended off the challenge of Matt Healey to dive over at the corner. Doussain made it 14-0 with the conversion from the touchline.
Connacht finally got on the scoreboard after 33 minutes with a Craig Ronaldson penalty, before Quinn Roux was shown a yellow card with Toulouse leading 14-3 just before half-time.
The Toulouse power shone through after the break as they gave Connacht a mountain to climb. Some indiscipline from the Irish defence allowed their Pool 2 rivals to pile on the pressure. And they soon cracked as Tekori peeled off the back of a powerful maul to score and make it 19-3.
But just when Connacht needed a leader, Muldoon reignited their quarter-final charge. Peter Robb made good ground with a powerful run down the centre before the ball was shipped to their skipper, who barged his way over. Ronaldson converted to cut the gap to 19-10. But Toulouse held-off Connacht in the final minutes to advance.
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